Pignanelli: Joe Cannon, editor of the Deseret Morning News, has committed an act of appalling cruelty. Because of him, I lost a free lunch... at an Italian restaurant.

I like Joe Cannon. He has been good to me, despite my obnoxious heathen Democrat tendencies. He openly supported me in the mayor's race. Joe is a progressive Republican visionary, hoping to expand the GOP tent through racial and religious diversity.

Cannon's appointment as editor of this paper caused much grumbling by Democrats and many Republicans. They believed his prior position as chairman of the Utah State Republican Party drives a political agenda for the paper and even his well-meaning intentions would be viewed with suspicion. I thought otherwise. I countered his detractors with a firm retort that he was "too smart" and possessed the common sense to avoid even the appearance of journalistic impropriety. Confident of Joe's savvy, I made several wagers for lunch.

Cannon was a recent featured speaker at the Council for National Policy. This group conducts meetings behind closed doors — even guest presenters are not allowed to reveal the details. All members are sworn to an oath of confidentiality (an obvious incentive for big dues). Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in attendance, as was Dick Cheney.

A lot of journalistic think tanks are livid that one of their own (technically but not spiritually) would attend such a supersecret event. No other representative of the "traditional" media was present. These newspaper gurus believe that no journalist should prioritize the secrecy of such meetings over the interest of readers. But the issue is bigger than the legitimate right of this organization to secrecy.

When Cannon consented to serve as editor, he agreed to surrender certain rights. Just as elected officials, celebrities and sports figures sacrifice privacy, Cannon had to abandon certain affinities. Publishers and editors of newspapers are entitled to have political opinions and even express them. However, an editor's opinions are secondary to a higher calling. The public and readers must have confidence that all political parties, special interest groups, public individuals, etc., will be held to the same level of scrutiny. Americans reasonably expect that newspaper leadership will not engage in the active promotion of policy through political action. They must be separate from the process — notwithstanding their personal beliefs. This is why you do not witness responsible editors participating at political conventions.

Cannon's participation in a meeting of ultraconservatives with the intent of influencing policy blemishes any mantra of objectivity this paper claims. Thus, he goofed.

Even worse, I am forced to a luncheon of Americanized Mexican food... at my expense. I am sending Cannon the bill.

Webb: This little kerfuffle is rather silly. All Cannon did was attend a meeting of conservative leaders and speak about the news business. No biased news story was published in the paper. No reporter or editor was directed to slant any coverage or write anything improper.

Had Cannon been invited to speak to the Sierra Club about the news business in the Internet age, no one would have raised an eyebrow.

Nothing is wrong with attending and speaking at a meeting. When I was in the newspaper editing business, I spoke to many different groups, some liberal, some conservative. Frank and I still speak frequently. This Thursday we speak to Humanists of Utah, as liberal a group as exists.

If anything, newspaper editors ought to get out more, attend community meetings and conferences, talk to real people, maybe even serve on a few committees. Sitting in the office all day, talking only to other journalists, is a great way to get a skewed, cynical, ivory tower view of the world.

Utah newspapers used to provide much more community leadership than they do today. Publishers like the Tribune's Jack Gallivan and the Deseret News' Wendell Ashton were community builders. They took on big projects and helped make things happen. Today, Tribune Publisher Dean Singleton doesn't even live in the state, and Morning News Publisher Jim Wall isn't very visible.

In my opinion, it's OK for publishers and top editors to have opinions, have friends and support good causes. They should never direct reporters to cover a topic in a biased way or kill legitimate stories, but what's the use of having a big voice if you don't use it to crusade for your own vision of a better community?

Newspaper leaders also used to imbue their papers with a personality and identity. That's been lost as papers have been absorbed into big corporations with interchangeable editors and publishers who move from one property to another.

Though locally owned, the Morning News has always had its own identity crisis. Liberals don't trust it because of LDS Church ownership. Many conservatives don't think it's conservative enough. Being church-owned is more curse than blessing, ensuring a middle-of-the-road blandness as the church doesn't want to be viewed as either a conservative or liberal institution.

Rest assured that Joe Cannon isn't going to take the Morning News in any right-wing direction. In fact, he is likely so ultrasensitive to accusations of conservative bias that Democrats and liberals ought to be glad he's the editor.

In general, the news business is dominated by liberal reporters and editors. It's nice to find a conservative among the crowd,

Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, he served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.